Capt. Gail Harris (Ret. US Navy)

Capt. Gail Harris (Ret. US Navy)

It Was Meant

To Be


~  “A Wing

      and a

            Prayer" ~

At the age of 5, Gail Harris knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. In the 1960’s, most girls wanted to be a nurse or a teacher; Gail Harris wanted to be an intelligence officer. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that Gail Harris knew that’s what she was meant to do. She was five years old and watching the movie “A Wing and a Prayer” with her father. In the scene where the intelligence officer was giving the pilot an intelligence briefing – telling him where the Japanese were – she said to her Dad, “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” And he said, “Honey, you can do anything you want.”

She never doubted that calling but it wasn’t until 3 or 4 years ago, when she was watching that same movie that she noticed that on the blackboard where the names of all the pilots were written and then erased when they didn’t come back, at least three of the pilots still on the blackboard were named Harris. The carrier they were on was the Enterprise and the major battle in the movie was the Battle of Midway. When she realized that her Dad was born in Enterprise, AL and her Mom’s family was from Midway, AL, she made an even eerier connection than she had when she first knew her destiny was being shown her on the movie screen. In that moment she knew that it was meant to be.

An intelligence officer is similar to a journalist – they both provide a description covering all the important questions, “Who, What, When, Where, and How.” While a journalist mostly describes things that have happened, an intelligence officer takes things that have happened and uses them to describe the playing field because, in every military field of action, the Commanding Officers need to know what’s going on in the region. In the Navy, this means in the water, on top of the water, and wherever the surrounding countries are doing something which might present a threat. An intelligence officer monitors these activities and analyzes what they are really doing – are they just protecting themselves or just building a nuclear power plant or are they manufacturing and stockpiling nuclear weapons and preparing to attack the fleet or a neighboring country.

Like a journalist, an intelligence officer writes newspaper or magazine style articles, books, and reports analyzing what’s going on in the surrounding countries. This takes more than just watching what they are doing at the moment; it requires a working knowledge of each country’s history, economy, military forces, etc…

Contrary to the public’s image of spies with telephones in their shoes, 85% of the nation’s intelligence personnel serve in the Department of Defense. The CIA is only one of 16 agencies. Movies, books, and the media have made their agents to seem glamorous and exciting, but, Ms. Harris points out that the personnel of the country’s Intelligence Corps are hard-working analysts who are there to tell the warriors where to drop the weapons.

The well-known joke that calls “military intelligence” an oxymoron (where one word contradicts the other) holds no humor for Capt. Harris who says that it’s just an effort at humor that comes from people who know absolutely nothing about military intelligence. She uses the example of the Battle of Midway from the movie which inspired her to explain what she means.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were looking for a “knock-out blow.” They thought that if they destroyed the remaining forces, the U.S. would be forced out of the war. Their naval intelligence people used code in their communications, of which US intelligence could read about 20%.

From what could be read of the Japanese code, it began to look like the blow would come in one of two places: the Aleutian Islands or Hawaii. Having lost most of the US Navy stationed in Pearl Harbor, the US did not have enough forces to defend both locations and US intelligence believed that the Aleutians site was a decoy even though they were sending forces toward both, because the Japanese were giving names to the Hawaiian Islands.

So they put out false information on a water distribution system on Midway Island and a few days later the Japanese were talking about the Air Force having water distribution problems on Midway Island, using AF – their code name for Midway – so they knew that they had chosen Hawaii. This illustrates the guiding wisdom of military operations: Good intelligence alone will not win a war, but we cannot win a war without it.

It’s difficult for the public to grasp the extent of the intelligence community’s job until they understand that every 24 hours the intelligence community acquires a billion pieces of information (as of 2007). So when the press says that the intelligence community didn’t connect the dots, Ms. Harris says that they really don’t know what they are talking about because nobody has any idea how much information there is – how many dots there are to connect. Even if everything that should be reported is not passed on, there is still a ton of information that gets reported.

The public also doesn’t realize that the intelligence officers play a major role in the safety of our military personnel wherever they are serving. For instance, if a fleet is getting ready for port calls in countries where there have been a terrorist problem, the Navy would certainly not want their sailors to go to places where it was unsafe.  So they would need information to help them decide on safe ports for the fleet. 

Capt. Harris tells of being an attaché in Egypt in the 1990’s when a ship was planning to stop at a port and tour the pyramids. She told the Admiral in charge that the Egyptians said it would be safe because they would step up security if personnel wanted to visit the pyramids. The Admiral chose not to let the crew participate in any sightseeing trips in Egypt even though there would be extra security due to previous terrorist attacks in the area.

When supporting a positional war like the Gulf War, the intelligence officers also have to tell the naval pilots what and where the dangers are – mines and guns that can shoot down their aircraft like surface-to-air missiles. They actually sit down with the flight crews and show them the dangers and threats and how they can be prepared for or avoid them, which was exactly what was going on in the movie of her childhood dreams.

It’s called “Preparation of the Battlefield.” They also try to prevent problems by avoiding places like when Capt Harris had to discern if the Russians were going to rescue an American crew of a military aircraft that had crashed and were stranded in international waters off the coast of Russia.  It was the height of the cold war in the 1970’s and while she thought they were going to rescue the crew, if she had been wrong and American forces had been sent in, it could have caused huge problems.

Intelligence officers have to make those analyses on a daily basis and they are extremely valuable to those in charge. Colin Powell always told intelligence officers:   “Tell me what you know, tell me what you don’t know, and what is the significance of what you don’t know. Basically, analyzing intelligence information is like putting together pieces of a puzzle but in their business, it’s very rare that they will have all the pieces. In order to fill in the blanks, it is vital to have someone who understands the culture and history of the surrounding countries.

For instance, India and Pakistan are nuclear countries, but we’re not really concerned that they will use their nuclear capabilities against us or each other. On the other hand, last summer, North Korea was making noises about using nuclear power – the intelligence communities of the US and S. Korea were convinced that North Korea sank the South Korean naval destroyer doing normal training operations in international waters. After that incident the relationships between the US, North and South Korea became more strained with North Korea threatening to use their nuclear weapons against their neighbor as well as the US fleet. It was the duty of the intelligence officers to analyze the situation and advise the commanders on what they thought the North Koreans would actually do.

In a recent interview, Capt. Harris spoke frankly with Our Heritage:


Capt. Gail Harris was a “first” of monumental proportions – she was the first woman of her race to be accepted into the Naval Intelligence Corps and she was the highest ranking female officer in the Navy at the time of her retirement in 2006. Gail Harris was also a giant in the traditionally male military machine. She not only blazed huge trails for women and for African-Americans, she also set the bar high for all those who came after her. Her record is exemplary. She was a model of effective leadership and exceptional performance for men and women, black and white, who felt the same calling to serve their country in the Intelligence Corps. Our Heritage salutes her!

Written By:

Susan Bowman
A Woman's War by Gail Harris                                                                                                                 

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